Three hundred and fifty dollars, a double-team lap dance, and one debauched night later, Brian Gresko reflects on what he learned from his time at an NYC strip club.
Our primate cousins have it easier: when male monkeys gather together, they form a social pecking order based on penis size. Heterosexual American men, on the other hand, sublimate this contest into challenges of consumption. Each man proves his worth by eating more meat, drinking more alcohol, dropping more money, and making increasingly misogynistic remarks to his rivals. Often, sports must be discussed. Nowhere is this more the case than at the traditional bachelor party, where such over-the-top male antics are meant to honor the groom-to-be’s masculinity before marriage neuters it.
Not long ago, my close friend Zach had just such a party, a 12-hour orgy of beer and beef, beginning with a barbecue lunch in Midtown Manhattan and ending with a wee-hours pub crawl through Greenwich Village. I’ve never been much of a man’s man, and the invitation left me filled with pit-of-the-stomach dread rather than testosterone-fueled enthusiasm. There was, however, one activity that piqued my interest: the promise of seeing dancing, bare-breasted women before night’s end.
My interest was purely intellectual in nature, of course. During adolescence, most of the boys I knew, when confronted with the strange new feelings, hair growth, and fluids of puberty, turned to sports or television for male role models. I turned to Henry Miller. He seemed a down-to-earth Everyman with the mind of a scholar, the soul of an artist, and the heart of a romantic poet. Miller was fascinated with the sordid underworld of Paris, and his prostitutes, even when ugly and scarred on the outside, were beautiful to behold. In Miller’s portraits of Left Bank bohemia, the artist and the lady of the evening were two of a kind: both sought financial support, and both wanted only to love and be loved and live free, unencumbered by society’s small-minded taboos. Even their diseases seemed like dues to be paid in pursuit of some higher ideal—a little dose of the clap was nothing more than a big “fuck you” to the establishment.
As Zach’s party approached, the eternal teenager in me still hoped that Miller’s passionate theories about paid companionship were true. I imagined that deep in the crack of an exotic dancer’s cleavage I might find some clarity of mind or insight into life’s mysteries. Only one concern plagued me: how could I lose myself in this beautiful underworld without spending too much money? I had been unemployed for three months and was being supported by my fiancée.
As many men do when confounded by money or breasts, or, in this case, both, I asked my father for advice. “You don’t have to spend that much for a good time. Give the girl a dollar, and she’ll dance kinda close to you. Give her five dollars, and she’ll dance real close.” I was surprised that a lap dance came so cheap. Further discussion revealed that my father last visited a strip club in 1979. I worried about inflation. My fiancée, willing, within limits, to let boys be boys, told me to deal with it, and approved a budget of 150 dollars for the evening.
When the big night arrived and our band of merry revelers pulled up in front of Scores, our strip club of choice, it was 4:00 a.m. and I had 50 dollars left in my wallet. The night had to this point been memorable, if not always pleasant. I had succumbed to peer pressure to chug beers and down shots, distanced myself from the guys directing awkward come-ons at our waitress, and had a visceral brush with literary history at the White Horse Tavern, where I threw up 100 dollars’ worth of assorted food and drink in the same toilet Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac probably also puked in.
I experienced a moment of panic when I found that the club’s cover charge was 75 dollars, but after incessant whining and an attempt to sneak in when the bouncer’s back was turned, it was dropped to 30 bucks a head for our party so we’d stop loitering indecisively in front of the door. The woman who took our money was as slight as the bouncer was wide. She perched on a tall stool, her slender arms wrapped in a shawl, a book open on the counter, her tired eyes framed by thick-rimmed glasses. It is common in liberal, learned circles to disdain strip clubs as sexist, oppressive symbols of patriarchal capitalism run rampant, but already I felt good about myself: the girl was obviously a student, and I was contributing to her education fund. I imagined the noble dancers who would benefit from my generosity tonight, the single mothers working to feed hungry children, the young girls escaping dead-end Middle America to remake themselves in New York, the women striving for financial solvency against crushing credit card debt. I had only 20 dollars left, but those 20 dollars were going to make a difference.
Entering the club proper was like passing through a rabbit hole into a wonderland of women. I had anticipated a candlelit cave with moldy exposed brick, and stale air smelling of spilled beer and semen. What I found was a theatrically lit playroom that looked like the uncensored set of a Snoop Dogg video. Ruby-red faux-leather couches lined the walls and carved the space into small booths, and a bright stage jutted out into a sea of plush chairs. This was no Bada Bing club with an army of Amazons mounting poles; only a lone, slender girl swayed her arms in a torpid dance on the long stage. The real show was on the floor, where women meandered around the maze of chairs. Some wore short dressy things—no more than simple swaths of cloth—that secured with a clasp around their necks. Others had removed the clasp, exposing their breasts, or had stepped out of the dress completely and sported only sparkly G-strings and assorted piercings. There was a surprising amount of diversity among the dancers: various skin tones, hair colors, and body sizes, some obviously enhanced, others all natural.
Zach and I stood next to each another in silence, taking in the cornucopia of curves, allowing our reflexes to adjust to the fact that we could look, stare, and ogle all we wanted without shame or censure. Jonathan, Zach’s brother-in-law—an experienced strip clubber and hardcore drinker who, during his own legendary bachelor party in New Orleans, had tripped over a curb in a drunken haze and broken his nose, only to head back to Club Barely Legal freshly bandaged—put a heavy arm around both of our shoulders and steadied himself. “Gentlemen, welcome to paradise.”
We cozied up in a booth, and a petite blond woman approached, her super-sized breasts leading the way. I pitied her lumbar spine. She instructed me in the lap dance basics: first and foremost, the receiver of the dance needs a well-defined space around his body. She slid me away from Zach onto my own cushion. The dancer is dancing for you, and it is important that she not brush up against a non-paying friend. Second, the man’s legs are to be slightly spread apart, and he should sit up straight, hands at his side. This creates a virtual box within which the dancer will dance. Most men keep their fingers to themselves, but ballsy guys stroke the dancer’s legs.
I thought my dancer would stay within this safe space, but no, and this was when things got interesting. She leaned her arms against the back of my cushion, dangling her grapefruit breasts in front of my face. For a moment I watched agog, following them with my eyes as they jiggled back and forth. An infantile sense of calm washed over me, and my mouth instinctively dropped open. She banged me out of it by doing the twist, her silicone sacks slapping my face from side to side. Perhaps she was expressing aggression, or maybe the implants impaired her sense of feeling, but this was rough stuff, as the night’s growth of stubble gave my cheeks the texture of sandpaper. She felt cold and clammy and left sweaty nipple prints on me. When she deemed I’d had enough, she stood up, kissed her index finger and held it against my lips, as if begging me to keep her mammary assault a secret.
That finger could have been anywhere.
This full-contact performance cost 20 bucks. I pulled the last of my allowance from my wallet and handed it over. Cashed out, I tried to content myself with watching the other guys receive dances, but the party had devolved, with each man following his own path. Jonathan had scampered away to the bar with one of Zach’s childhood friends, where they continued an argument from dinner about Argentine wine. Zach’s soon-to-be brother-in-law was slumped in a chair, stunned from too many tequila shots. His cousin from Boston received a few dances with a straight-mouthed serious look on his face, as if he were an instructor assessing the dancer’s moves. After an attractive raven-haired woman performed for him, I asked why he seemed so grim. “Hah tits wahn’t bahg ’naff,” he said, frowning.
“It’s good to have standards,” I replied.
With no breasts pinning me down or money in my pocket, I took a spin around the club, surveying the scene. I was surprised to find some non-working women among the male spectators, who appeared to be having a blast. Two of the women, a pair of skinny young exhibitionists, created a stir by jumping onto the stage, sandwiching the stripper between them in a dirty disco dance and showing quick glimpses of their bottoms to the audience below. While the women onstage began to kiss, a lady in a firetruck-red outfit smiled to herself, stretched out her legs, and slid her hand down her skirt. I shouted a “WHOO HOO!” of encouragement to the depraved lot of them.
But among the men I detected little fraternizing, and scant joy. Most sat alone, and, like the men in my party, seemed to have retreated into their own private, alcohol-fueled reveries. An unceasing ebb and flow of strippers led others by the hands to the “champagne room” in the rear of the club. For what, exactly? There were no menus lying about detailing the offerings of this much-whispered-about space. My gut told me that it wasn’t just corks popping off back there. Yet even these men looked like hangdogs. Where was the joie de vivre?
I could see what needed to be done—I had to show these macho meatheads how to appreciate the beautiful, passionate, tragic women available to them. But I lacked the means to do it. I felt like I had been preparing for this moment since those sweaty late nights in high school when I’d read and reread my favorite dog-eared passages in Tropic of Capricorn. I wish I could report that I experienced some moments of moral wrestling and conflict over what to do. But no, I simply said “Fuck it” and left the club in search of the nearest ATM.
I found one at the corner bodega. Once in front of the machine’s icy blue screen, I made a decision that my addled brain considered logical: seeing as I was paying a bank fee to withdraw the money, I figured I might as well withdraw more money than I thought I needed; I would just be careful not to spend it all. A few key strokes later and two hundred dollars spat into my hand.
I re-entered the main floor of Scores feeling like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The horn crescendo of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” blared from the speakers, and I walked in time to the beat. Women slowed down as they passed me, their eyes deep with promises, their lips mouthing the words “Wanna dance?” I winked at some of them or flicked my fingers in their directions like little guns, popped my collar and raised my eyebrows—I crossed that room like I owned it. Then I slid back into our booth, my castle, and waited for the girls to approach. It didn’t take long; they could smell the cash. It was irresistible to them, like stripper catnip.
Two girls entered our booth, both identical in type: brunettes, dark eyes, dark complexions, not terribly tall, chomping on gum like twins from an X-rated Doublemint ad. One had curly hair and a robust figure; the other’s hair was wavy and her body athletic.
“How ’bout a dance,” Curly asked, smiling brightly.
Her cheeks were lightly sprinkled with freckles. I silently nodded my head, all cool and calm and James Dean–like. Her partner tried to find work among my companions, but they were taking a breather. Shit, I thought to myself, they’re washed out and I haven’t even gotten started yet.
“Let me dance for you too,” Wavy said.
A twofer, I thought, smelling a bargain. Sex on the cheap? This was living Henry Miller–style.
With the chorus from the Cabaret song “Two Ladies” echoing in my head, I let the girls place me into position. Curly perched herself on my left thigh while Wavy danced on my right. If only I were lazy-eyed, I might have been able to take them both in. As it was, Curly captured my attention by bringing her face close—very, very close, angling her nose next to mine as if she was going to give me an Eskimo kiss. Her minty breath blew hot on my lips. She slid her nose against mine in a languid motion. I couldn’t help but tilt my face up, anticipating the soft feel of her lips and the taste of her gum, and my mind short-circuited: smoke drifted up from my ears. She smacked the tip of my nose lightly with hers, chastising me for my audaciousness, and began to purr in my ear. My body released itself into a near-coma level of relaxation.
Wavy’s hands were on my chest, moving up towards my collar, tickling, poking, and rubbing me. She began to undo my shirt buttons, and Curly egged her on. She took my right nipple in her fuchsia talons and tweaked it, then barked at me, as if the tables had turned, “Take it off!”
Things became hazy. My brain was overwhelmed, overtired, and over-stimulated. The women blurred into a single Octopussy-esque creature, an eight-limbed, two-headed monster of myth that moved and bounced and giggled in time to Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.” They shimmied and convulsed around me, shaking behinds, thrusting breasts, performing some ancient dance whose steps are mapped out deep in our DNA, and then, with a twinkle in their brown eyes, began to scratch my now bare chest, running their claws up and down it. For the second time that night, breasts were smooshed up against my face, as sharp nails raked my hair. It took all of my self-control to avoid drooling. A G-stringed bottom jammed itself into my lap and jimmied around. “Awww yeah—rock hard,” one of the girls moaned.
And suddenly, that was it. The siren spell was broken. I wasn’t rock hard at all. I wasn’t even semi-hard. In fact, I was barely aware that I even had a penis. My body was at ease and my senses were electrified, but I didn’t want to have sex with these women. This was a sensual experience, not a sexual one. There was no real intimacy here. I now understood why the men around me looked so sad and washed up. How many of them were looking for love in a lap dance, or connection in the champagne room? It would be an endless quest.
Curly stood in front of me and began jiggling her backside. It looked as if her ass was having an epileptic seizure.
“You’re fun,” Wavy said. She spoke with the inflection of a teenage girl from Long Island, though her smile lines placed her somewhere closer to my age bracket. “Would you like to come to the back with us?” she asked in a put on little girl’s voice, massaging my thigh. “We’ll rape you,” she continued, mischievously smiling at her partner and giggling.
Her word choice left me disturbed and disgusted.
Curly leaned forward over my legs. “I want a hard cock right here,” she said, stroking the smooth skin between her breasts.
“I’m sure that would be nice,” I said. “This has certainly been nice. But…”
They sensed their hold over me weakening. They assured me I could pay by credit card, but in this matter I was firm: it was time for our association to come to an end.
They jumped up and pulled their dress-things on. “That’ll be $120,” Curly said mechanically, shoving her hand in my face.
My mouth dropped open again, this time in shock.
“That’s two girls for three dances,” she said.
Wavy was already scanning the crowd for their next mark. I tried bargaining them down to $80, but there was no discount for buying in bulk, and no such thing as a free lap dance. I handed over the money, which amounted to 40 bucks a minute.
The girls strode off and the guys surrounded me, like a team jockeying around the star quarterback, expressing their approval through grunts, guffaws, and strong wallops to my shoulder, each trying to outdo one another in expressing their awe.
“I look over, and Mr. Unemployed here is going Full Monty with two women—two women!” Zach said, hanging from my neck.
“Ahe yeh itchy?” his cousin asked. “Ah’ll itch yeh!”
He began running his hands over my chest, mocking the women’s performance.
Jonathan prodded his finger into my chest like an accusation. “You are a dangerous man, my friend—a dangerous, dangerous man.”
What could I do but play my part? “Guys, money is no concern when tits are involved,” I explained to my newfound fan club.
They howled in admiration. Clearly my appetite for lap dances was unmatched, and thus my masculinity in this area unsurpassed.
I wandered away from our booth, and took refuge on an out-of-the-way cushion where I could survey the floor. The cleavage on display held no hidden insights into sex, only obvious observations on money, power, loneliness, and addiction. The beauty was that of tragedy, not romance. The liberal in me kicked in, and I wondered how much of my money actually reached the girls’ pockets.
But I continued to buy dances; I couldn’t help myself. It seemed expected of me, as my chest-baring antics had made me the lascivious leader of our little horny horde, and there was the aesthetic pleasure of the women’s bodies and attention.
Curly performed my last dance of the evening, though I was disappointed to find that, despite our long and momentous history together, she didn’t seem to recognize me. She danced lethargically, her eyes weary and distant, her moves derivative of her performance from earlier in the evening.
I too was worn out. While my gaze wandered, I thought of Henry Miller and of how the life of a writer—especially that of an expatriate writer—is a solitary, lonely one. As, in its way, is the work of the erotic dancer. In my immaturity, I had focused too much on the sex and not seen the sorrow in Miller’s Paris. The song ended and I handed over my last twenty, just as the bouncers started herding docile patrons out of the club and into the cobalt blue of pre-dawn Manhattan.
Cashed out once again, I headed to the ATM in order to withdraw fare for the cab ride home. The thin paper receipt showed a balance reduced by 350 dollars since night’s start, more than double my established budget. I thought of what the night had taught me, and considered it money well spent.
My fiancée thought otherwise.
—Photo Thomas Hawk/Flickr